Heading into the 6th, and final stage of Ras na mBan I was 48mins 40secs down, and 39th on GC. I was also rather sore. This was the shortest stage in the race, and it only had one climb of note, Moll’s Gap. Moll is well known to the many who have tried their hand at the Ring Of Kerry sportive, it is a grand steady climb and presents little by way of a challenge when taken at a moderate pace. But with only 45 seconds separating the top 6 riders in the race, I had a feeling the pace might be a little above comfortable.
My resolution for the day was to finish Ras na mBan less than an hour down on the winner (I was 1 hour 40mins down last year), so I had just over 11 minutes to play with (hey, I was being good to myself, post-traumatic stress and all!). My hope for the day was to finish Stage 6 without losing any more time at all, and maybe even to move up the GC (I’d moved up one slot per day so far, in fact, if I could drag this race out for another 39 days I’d win the bloody thing!!). I’d also re-promised myself that I’d try to ride at the front as frequently as I could.
We lined out under Louis and Valerie’s watchful eyes, and Declan’s watchful ears (you know what I mean), one more time. We did our final ceremonial lap of lovely Sneem, and we were off…… out the road to Kenmare, ocean on our right, cheers on our left, motorbikes ahead, cavalcade behind. One last time girls, this time with feeling.
As instructed by Aidan, Charlotte attacked from the gun (well, the flag) and got a few to follow her…… exciting times!! The jersey holders and their teams were having none of it though and Charlotte was soon back in the fold. Then Ishbel, in her distinctive tartan kit, bounced off the front. She got out of sight in the twisty section and the bunch became uneasy…… bums lifted out of saddles, calf muscles flexed…..Race On!!!! We hurtled over the narrow bridge at 13km and up the rise beyond. We threw ourselves along the dead section of road between there and Kenmare. I know because I was at the front!! The very front most of the time in fact (and, eh, in the, eh, rather substantial wind actually. I would pay for this later), and I even attacked once, Really! I got a bit of a gap too (I would also pay for this effort, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth it). At one stage I looked to my left and saw my 3 team-mates across the front……. Cycling Leinster were setting the pace (yeah, yeah, pay for it later, blah, blah)!!!
We hit Kenmare and took the left turn that marks the start of the gradual climb to Moll’s Gap. As we rounded the corner I glanced back and realised that the speed we had set so far had taken its toll on tired legs; there were no more than 40 riders left in the bunch. As the road rose steadily so did the pace. Somebody was driving the front. This was the last chance there’d be to snap some elastic and shake up the top of the GC…..
I dug deep to stay near the front, and counted down the kms on my computer. C’mon Fi, hang in there. As the QOH came closer I started to slip. I put my head down and hauled on the handlebars. I heard the car engine behind and realised I was last man. I got out of the saddle and kicked on again, I got back on Trish’s wheel and tried to settle my breathing. We rounded the open right-hand bend two corners from the top and the pace went up again. A few more riders slipped by me, reversing. I dug deeper and tried to hold the back, ……but I was yo-yoing. One more kick up, one dropped wheel, and I’d be gone.
We rounded the penultimate turn and the crest of Moll’s Gap became visible, sweeping over to our left. I was exactly where I shouldn’t have been, ……I was at the back, ……. no, I was the back…… no, I was off the back. Crap.
“Number 5o loses contact with the bunch.”
….. Commissaire Car passes……. Neutral Service….. Medical Car…… (NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!)….. First Team Car…… Abergavenny car…… Look Mum No Hands….. Black Rose….. Team Ireland…… Aido & Tom….. Aido and Tom!!!! Brilliant!! Big shouts from the boys…… I jumped on the back as we came over the top, the bunch were still visible…… I heard Caroline shout “C’mon Cookie!!”….. I saw Peter, camera poised…… I pushed into the big ring….. Tom shouted at me “USE THE CARS!!!”. I knew what to do. There was a significant headwind as I started the descent, the only way I would ever get back to the bunch was to weave my way up through the cavalcade that had passed me so ruthlessly earlier, using the cars to shelter me from the wind. I’d seen this done a hundred times since Ras Mumhan, time to ride my ass off, again.
I heard Frank shouting at me from the Cycling Munster car behind me, I swung out right, off Aidan’s bumper and around by his window….. “DO IT!!!” he screamed. On, to the High Wycombe car, around it….. and then onto Gillian & Stuart’s bumper…. around them, and on to Black Rose…… bit of a tow from them (Thanks Aidan!!)…… around them….. and around Look Mum No Hands car…… Nearly there….. mouth hanging open, sucking the air in, must get on, everyone behind is watching, cars beeping their horns as I pass, letting the cars ahead know I am there, I know the radio call….. “Rider in the cavalcade”…… I’ve been in those cars. I’ve looked up the Start List to see what Number 50’s name is, I’ve rolled down the window and shouted him on…. “C’mon Gareth!” “C’mon Keith!” “C’mon Dave! You can do it, you’re nearly there!!”….. I’ve been in cars where we’ve cheered as we’ve watched that struggling rider make contact again. But more often I’ve seen them fail. When that happens we say nothing, we don’t look them in the eye as they slip by the second time, going in the wrong direction. Race over.
…… Abergavenny car…… Race Leader’s Team Car……. (Oh My God! I can do this!!) …… Neutral Service bumper, briefly…… around the Medical Car, hear a cheer from Conor and Paul….. Commisaire’s Car……. Whoooooo Hoooooo!!!!! ….*punch the air* …… “Number 50 is back in the bunch”.
And I stayed with them. All the way to the finish. I finished in the lead bunch of 29 riders. We raced the 58kms in 1 hour 42mins. I lost no time. NO TIME!! And I finished Ras na mBan in 34th place on the GC.